by Tomislav Podreka
and compliments of Fresh Cup Magazine
are, as an industry, at the beginning of the establishment of an American
tea ritual. Tea has an evolution as diverse as the civilizations that
have integrated it. Over the course of the last 5000 years, tea has
found a place not just on our tables, but in the fabric of the societies
that incorporate it.
Tea is the one food that is most recognizably associated with ritual
and ceremony. It is a small yet luxurious ritual that an immigrant
can turn to for the warmth and reminiscence of a distant home. Tea
represents both the prestigious and the common and is found in the
shanties of the ghettos as well as the pantries of the wealthy. It
holds no social standings and it is seen the world over as an egalitarian
America is in the grip of establishing tea on both the social and
economic map. If we look at the historical parameters set in every
country, this starts with the elucidation of the medicinal benefits
of tea. In China, the myth of the emperor Shen Nung evoked the resonance
of health and vitality.
China became the first of the great tea-drinking nations to use health
to advocate the drinking of tea. Later, this would become the catch
cry of the British as they spoke of the healthful and invigorating
properties of Camellia sinensis. Of course, today we have evidence
and research to support these claims of folklore.
More importantly, this is a pattern of marketing that
brings people into the fold so to speak. The United States is currently
in the midst of the health benefits stage. Every week
there is another story in the media about the medicinal benefits of
tea. This is really an introductiona carrot that danglesand
as we chase the carrot, we find ourselves moving closer to our own
During the industrial revolution, tea in England won the endorsement
of factory Barons who acted on the most practical of motives: to wean
the workers of the customary breakfast ale and thus help reduce onsite
accidents, which slowed productivity. This is also occurring in America
today, only our productivity is hampered by stress rather than alcohol.
Today, there are those who would lead us to believe in the spiritual
embodiment of this beveragethat tea is the catalyst to a deeper
experience ... religion and philosophy. The structure of a philosophy
is integral to the seating of a tea society. Philosophy establishes
perceptions and ritual and gives a certain structure without encumbering
one with equipment. This is the second and most telling stage of a
permanent incorporation of tea into American culture. It has occurred
in every other culture, and there will be no difference here. Tea
will share what will be as simple as the basic ritual that coffee
has enjoyed in America. How many times have we heard, I cant
get started without my morning coffee.? This is the most basic
establishment of ritualsimple comfort.
Herbals helped take Americas teas cultural to another
level. These infusions have made great inroads as a common staple
of American life. Early on, they were a simple remedy to minor afflictions,
such as sleeplessness, stomach aches or stress. Tisanes and infusions
created a small ritual all their own in kitchens across America. Herbals
had, in fact, set the stage for a revival of Camellia sinensis into
the lifestyle of a nation; all tea needed was that first great health
claimthe inhibition of cancer.
As scientists began studying tea and health, an onslaught of studies
on tea and cancer began proliferating through the media, and research
on other ailments soon followed. There was a study illustrating radical
reductions in heart disease through drinking tea, and another on how
tea could prevent the decay of the elasticity of the skin.
Suddenly tea could make you live longer and look younger. The health
benefits of tea, along with a nation searching for alternative cultural
experiences, catapulted tea into newspapers and magazines everywhere.
From these introductions to a public looking for better and tastier
ways to stay healthy, sprung a core of aficionados who began to appreciate
a certain meditative quality of preparing and taking tea, be it alone
or with friends. Thus, tea has slowed the pace of life. The luxury
of personal investment becomes available, and the beginning of a tea
culture now starts to take shape in America.
The marvel of living in the U.S. at this time is that not only am
I involved in an industry that is defining itself as a presence, but
I am participating in the development and defining of a culture that,
aside from the obvious historical precedence, is wholly modern! By
wholly modern I mean a culture that is not a function of any single
cultural or societal influence. The greatest illustration of the uniqueness
of American tea drinking is iced tea. Wholly indigenous to the U.S.,
iced tea is the simplest form of social adaptation of a beverage that
is globally embraced.
What and how we drink tea will slowly sway and influence what American
tea culture will become. Key cities like New York and Los Angeles
will be significant, not so much because theyre major metropolises,
but because of the amount of immigration that occurs to both of cities,
which are still literal gateways to the New World.
Although I am myself an immigrant who has seen many incarnations of
tea, it was not until I moved to the U.S. that I witnessed such great
depth of variety in tea service and ritual. For instance, when I arrived,
I could easily take comfort in an Australian tea with
a British-style service and not be far from home.
But what made tea endearing to me was not tea and scones, but rather
tea and palacinkaCroatian crepes, jam-filled and dusted with
icing sugaror robust Assam with a squeeze of orange. When immigrants
come to America, they import the small, incidental motion of a personal
ritual. In their country it is an embellishment to an established
culture; in America it is a contribution to an emerging tradition.
If you look around the country, you will find a number of successful
teahouses prospering, all of which have looked to other cultures for
inspiration and guidance but have ultimately created their own sensibilities.
Teaism in Washington, D.C., has an Eastern feel, but it also embodies
the melting pot feel of the U.S. There is a bustle in Teaism that
reminds me of an ethnic marketplace. It prides itself on the variety
of tea adorning its shelves and the knowledge present within its walls.
In the same city there is Tryst, a lounge that gives both coffee and
tea equal respect. Tryst encourages an academic curiosity about the
refining elements of coffee and tea, causing a certain cross-pollination
of connoisseursa marvelous democracy of beverages. How much
more American could it be?
On the other coast, theres Zen Zoo, which has adapted a modern
Taiwanese concept, bubble tea. At Zen Zoo you can observe the art
of feng shui while you sip your bubble tea concoction from a Pilsner
glass. This teahouse exudes a tangible energya serenity, but
also an undercurrent of excitement. There is no denying the influences
in each of these teahouses, but the execution and delivery are all
There are three distinct regions of the U.S. that I think will define
what our tea culture will ultimately become. On the West Coast, with
its strong Asian immigration and integration, a strong Occidental
culture is emerging. Emphasis is placed on the academic nature of
the tea, and higher prices reflect that notion. Conversely, the same
coast is home to some of the more innovative and fun locations to
take tea, such as the aforementioned Zen Zoo.
The East Coast, on the other hand, continues to flirt with the Empire,
not so much British, as Commonwealth. Social Graces, a teahouse in
Easton, Penn., just by name implies an English sensibility, which
it does draw from, but it also has a feel that could never directly
be called English. New York has great tea rooms, many of which have
an unmistakable European air, butthe overall execution leaves no doubt
as to which city you are sipping in.
The South has more formal touch, not in presentation so much as its
use of tea as a vehicle to convey social grace and breeding. Tea in
the South is less about the product and more about the exhibition.
The South shows the grace of an older culture, almost pretentious,
but also inclusive, enthusiastic, refined, and slightly
Cultural identity defines our commerce and what we see as indispensable
in our everyday lives. For those in the tea business tea traditions
are an illustration of longevity. They are also an opportunity to
explore greater involvement in the industry and to discover the boundless
rewards tea can yield.
Podreka is the founder of Serendipitea, enough the largest independent
importers of fine and specialty teas in the United States. He is the
education chairman of the American Premium Tea Institute. A popular
speaker on the history and philosophy of tea, he travels across the
country lecturing and giving tea tastings. He lives in Connecticut.
For more information, visit serendipitea.com.